Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Wyrms and Werebears: Tale-Telling in the Eleventh Century and Today

A man fighting a dragon (BL Royal 6 C VI, f. 79v, C12th)

Along with half the rest of the world, last weekend I went to see The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. My reaction was probably in line with half the rest of the world's, too: awesome dragon, shame about the love-sick elves. But with my academic hat on I was also playing 'spot the medieval motif' which, as always with Tolkien, is not difficult ('medieval motif Tolkien bingo' would not be a very long-lasting game) but is both rewarding and fun. With The Hobbit it's even easier than with The Lord of the Rings because - well, mostly because there's a dragon. Whatever flaws the films might have, it's still an exciting experience to see scenes from much-loved medieval stories brought to life on screen: dragons and goldhoards, competitive riddling, Gandalf the Odinic wanderer, fierce dwarves with lovely Norse names... the list goes on. You might say that the end of The Desolation of Smaug is the most enjoyable film version of Beowulf ever made. It only left me wishing that one day someone will make an adaptation of the legend of Sigurðr the Völsung, which would make an amazing film in this vein.

Anyway, the reason I decided to post about this is that I've spent part of the past few years researching a particular medieval legend which incorporates several of these motifs. It comes from the English East Midlands, and seems to have developed in stages there between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. This legend has a couple of points of contact with The Hobbit, more because they're both drawing on common Scandinavian motifs than because Tolkien was using this particular legend (though surely he knew it). The story is lively and dramatic and might easily while away a winter evening; I find it wonderful to think of cinema audiences going in their millions to enjoy just the same stories as people in the East Midlands were telling each other nearly a thousand years ago.

So let me tell you the story of Siward. 


But first just one or two facts, because Siward, hero of our tale, was a real historical figure. He was born in Denmark, probably a little before the year 1000, and probably came to England during the reign of Cnut, when England was the best place for a young Dane to make a career for himself. By 1042 he was earl of Northumbria, a huge, complicated earldom stretching from the River Humber up north to the borders of Scotland. During Edward the Confessor's reign Siward also held a southern earldom in the area around Huntingdon/Cambridge/Northampton. He died in 1055 and was buried at York, in a church he had founded and dedicated to the brand-new Norwegian saint Olaf. This suggests he retained a sense of loyalty to his Scandinavian roots, and in English sources he was known as Siward digri, an Old Norse nickname which means 'big, large'.

And this would be all we knew about Siward, were it not for the fact that his son Waltheof was executed in 1076 for rebellion against William the Conqueror, and was considered to be a martyr and saint by the monks of Crowland Abbey in Lincolnshire, where he was buried. This meant that at the beginning of the thirteenth century the monks of Crowland produced a series of texts (in Latin) about Waltheof and his family, including one about Siward's ancestry and youthful deeds. That story is the one we're concerned with - it's pure legend, and it's awesome. It starts like this:

The stories of the ancients say that a certain nobleman, Ursus – whom the Lord permitted, contrary to the normal manner of human procreation, to be created from a white bear as father and a noblewoman as mother – begot Spratlingus; Spratlingus begot Ulsius; Ulsius begot Beorn, nicknamed Beresune, that is, 'Bear's Son'. This Beorn was a Dane by race, an excellent earl and famous soldier. However, as a sign of the difference of species between his parents, nature had given him the ears of his father, that is, of a bear. In everything else he was like his mother's species. And after many deeds of courage and military experiences, he had a son, very brave and a noble imitator of his father's military skill. His name was Siward.

Both Ursus and Björn (the Old Norse form of Beorn) mean 'bear', and this is a version of a Scandinavian story-type where a man is said to be descended from a bear - either an actual bear or a human who has been turned into a were-bear. The most famous is Böðvar Bjarki, but it's also often noted that one interpretation of the name Beowulf is 'bee-wolf', a kenning for 'bear' - and there are berserkers, of course. Siward was not the only person in eleventh-century England who numbered a bear among his ancestors; the family of Harold Godwineson might have done too, on their Danish mother's side. All these people are distant cousins of The Hobbit's shape-shifter Beorn. As Gandalf describes him:

He is a skin-changer. He changes his skin; sometimes he is a huge black bear, sometimes he is a great strong black-haired man with huge arms and a great beard. I cannot tell you much more, though that ought to be enough. Some say that he is a bear descended from the great and ancient bears of the mountains that lived there before the giants came. Others say that he is a man descended from the first men who lived before Smaug or the other dragons came into this part of the world, and before the goblins came into the hills out of the North. I cannot say, though I fancy the last is the true tale. He is not the sort of person to ask questions of.

At any rate he is under no enchantment but his own. He lives in an oak-wood and has a great wooden house; and as a man he keeps cattle and horses which are nearly as marvellous as himself. They work for him and talk to him. He does not eat them; neither does he hunt or eat wild animals. He keeps hives and hives of great fierce bees, and lives most on cream and honey. As a bear he ranges far and wide. I once saw him sitting all alone on the top of the Carrock at night watching the moon sinking towards the Misty Mountains, and I heard him growl in the tongue of bears; ‘The day will come when they will perish and I shall go back!’ That is why I believe he once came from the mountains himself.

The idea that bear characteristics are hereditary is embedded in the medieval versions (as with Siward's father's 'ears of a bear'; it makes concrete the idea that the hero's ancestry tells you something about his character), and so in The Hobbit:

Beorn indeed became a great chief afterwards in those regions and ruled a wide land between the mountains and the wood; and it is said that for many generations the men of his line had the power of taking bear’s shape, and some were grim men and bad, but most were in heart like Beorn, if less in size and strength.

'Beorn' is the perfect name for this character because the ambiguity - is he man or bear? - is right there in the word itself: the Old Norse name means 'bear' but in Old English beorn means 'man, warrior'. All the references to this legend in English sources link it to Scandinavian characters - either Danes or Norwegians - so I thought it was a nice touch that in The Hobbit films Beorn is played by a Swedish actor. To an eleventh-century English audience a were-bear would have had a distinctly Norse 'accent'!

Knight and dragon (BL Burney 216, f. 32v)

To return to Siward, the bear's grandson: filled with youthful ambition, he leaves his father’s house in search of adventure, with fifty companions and a well-stocked ship. He sails from Denmark to the Orkneys, where he lands on an island and is told that its inhabitants are being terrorised by a dragon. When Siward learns this he decides to fight the dragon, and put it to flight from the island. (In doing this he is following in the footsteps of his famous namesake, the most glorious dragon-fighter of Germanic legend, Sigurðr the Völsung). Triumphant, he sets sail again, south to Northumbria, where he has heard there's another dragon to fight. But when he lands in Northumbria, instead of meeting a dragon, he meets an old man sitting on a mound. Siward asks the old man if he knows where to find the dragon. But the man greets him by name, and says, "Siward, I know well for what reason you have undertaken this journey, to test your strength against a dragon; but you labour in vain, for you will not find it. Go back to your companions, and I will tell you what your fate will be. When you set out on your journey you will have favourable winds, and they will bring you to a river which is called the Thames. There you will find a city called London, and the king there will take you into his favour, and grant you great lands."

(It's not quite 'turn again Whittington, Lord Mayor of London', but that's the general idea!) 

Siward says he doesn't believe him, and that if he goes back to his companions and tells them this they will say it's nonsense. But as a token of his trustworthiness the old man presents him with a banner, and says its name is 'Ravenlandeye' - a name which is interpreted as 'Raven, terror of the land'. Siward takes the banner and goes back to his ship, and all the old man's words come true: he is guided to London, and goes to find King Edward. The king has heard of his coming, and accepts Siward into his service. Siward stays with the king and distinguishes himself so much that King Edward promises that the first high honour which becomes available in the land will be given to him.


Then one day it happens that Siward is travelling from Westminster to London when he encounters an enemy of the king, a Danish man named Tostig, earl of Huntingdon. The king hates Tostig because he's married to the queen's sister, a daughter of Earl Godwine. (This figure gets his name from the half-Danish Tostig Godwineson, who was in fact King Edward's brother-in-law, but this really has no basis in history). Siward and Tostig meet at a bridge over the river, which is so narrow that as haughty Tostig passes he splashes Siward's cloak with mud. (In those days, adds the monk of Crowland, men wore long animal-fur cloaks.) Siward takes Tostig's behaviour as an insult, and decides to get revenge. He lies in wait for Tostig, and as the earl returns across the bridge, Siward draws his sword and cuts off his head. Concealing the head beneath his cloak, he goes to the court and asks the king to make him earl of Huntingdon, because that earldom is vacant. The king says he must be joking - the earldom isn't vacant, the earl's only just left him! But Siward produces Tostig's head from beneath his cloak and throws it at the king's feet. King Edward, remembering his promise, has no choice but to grant the vacant earldom to Siward.

Siward leaves the court and seeks out his companions, and finds them fighting against Tostig's men. They kill them all and bury them near London, at a place which becomes known as the 'Danes' Church' - 'and so it is to this day', says the Crowland monk in the thirteenth century (and so it is to this day).


Some time later, Edward decides to make Siward earl of Northumbria, Cumberland and Westmoreland. And thus, says that Crowland monk, the ancient prophecy is fulfilled:

As the accounts of ancient historians of the English agree, the spirit of the prophet was fulfilled, which says that divine providence allowed to be born from the mixture of rational and irrational beings, that is of a bear and a woman, a man who gloriously and famously defended the king of England against his enemies: this was entirely brought to fulfilment in Earl Siward’s defence of the holy king Edward against invasion and danger.

So that's the story of Siward. Except for two more short episodes, for which we can turn from the Crowland monks to the historian Henry of Huntingdon, writing in the early twelfth century. He tells how Siward's elder son, Osbeorn (a name which means 'godlike-bear'), was killed in battle against the Scots in 1054:

Around this time Siward, the mighty earl of Northumbria, almost a giant in stature, very strong mentally and physically, sent his son to conquer Scotland. When they came back and reported to his father that he had been killed in battle, he asked, ‘Did he receive his fatal wound in the front or the back of his body?’ The messengers said, ‘In the front’. Then he said, ‘I am completely happy, for I consider no other death worthy for me or my son.’ So Siward set out for Scotland, and defeated the king in battle, destroyed the whole realm, and having destroyed it, subjected it to himself.

Historia Anglorum, ed. and trans. by Diana Greenway (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), pp.377-9.

The point of this questioning is that if you received your wounds in the front it means you got them in battle, fighting bravely; if you got them in the back, it was because you were running away. This Scottish campaign and this same dialogue feature towards the end of Shakespeare's Macbeth, after Siward's son has been killed by Macbeth:

ROSS
Your son, my lord, has paid a soldier’s debt.
He only lived but till he was a man,
The which no sooner had his prowess confirmed
In the unshrinking station where he fought,
But like a man he died.

SIWARD
Then he is dead?

ROSS
Ay, and brought off the field: your cause of sorrow
Must not be measured by his worth, for then
It hath no end.

SIWARD
Had he his hurts before?

ROSS
Ay, on the front.

SIWARD
Why then, God's soldier be he!
Had I as many sons as I have hairs,
I would not wish them to a fairer death:
And so, his knell is knoll'd.

The Death of Earl Siward (via wikipedia)

Some years later Siward himself, having lived awesomely, died awesomely too:

Siward, the stalwart earl, being seized by dysentery, felt that death was near. And he said, ‘How shameful it is that I, who could not die in so many battles, should have been saved for the ignominious death of a cow! At least clothe me in my impenetrable breastplate, gird me with my sword, place my helmet on my head, my shield in my left hand, my gilded battle-axe in my right, that I, the bravest of soldiers, may die like a soldier.’ He spoke, and armed as he had requested, he gave up his spirit with honour.

Historia Anglorum, trans. Greenway, p. 381.

And that was the end of stalwart Siward.

Isn't this a brilliant assortment of tales?  It's a jumble of stories recognisable from other more famous Old Norse and Old English sources: bear ancestry, dragon-fighting, the grim trickery with Tostig's head and the king's promise, and two kinds of valiant death. The mysterious old man who tells Siward his fate is clearly related to Odin, who in Norse tradition wanders the world in this disguise and intervenes in the lives of his favourite heroes. These motifs are widespread in folklore, but it's never quite enough to say 'this is a widespread motif'; we ought to ask ourselves who was telling this story in this particular situation, and why. The fact that this lengthy legend became attached to an eleventh-century earl suggests that a lively story-telling tradition existed in Anglo-Danish (and then Anglo-Norman) England, well into the twelfth century - a tradition capable of taking familiar story-elements and blending them together into new narratives, stories told about real contemporary people and not just great heroes of the past.

And then there is the question of why the monks of Crowland thought it was worth writing any of this down, as part of a collection of saints' legends which had deep significance for their abbey. The way Siward's legend is told is not 'here's a fun tale' but 'this is a story which demonstrates why our St Waltheof was a great man from a great family, and why Crowland can bask in his reflected glory'. Even if the monk didn't quite understand the story he was recording, he knew why he was recording it. You might think a Christian monk would have a problem with such faintly pagan motifs as human-bear miscegenation and spooky prophetic old men; but clearly not. He was prepared to take greatness for Siward wherever he could find it!

Beautiful Crowland Abbey

In all this, however, I think we should not underrate the importance of sheer narrative pleasure. It drives me crazy when scholars talk about legends like Siward's as if medieval writers only repeated them because they didn't know any better (I haven't got over one eminent historian haughtily describing one writer as being 'at the mercy of such legends', as if oral tradition were a contagious illness!). People tell stories because they want to, not because they have no choice; and stories about bear-men and dragon-fights and clever trickery are more than anything hugely enjoyable. Tolkien, who understood this better than anyone, has done more than anyone to remind us of the pleasures of such narratives - which is why cinema audiences of the twenty-first century are now enjoying just the same kinds of stories as people were in England and Scandinavia, many centuries ago.

ETA: My article on this topic in Neophilologus, 'Siward the Dragon-Slayer: Mythmaking in Anglo-Scandinavian England' can be found here (subscription required).

5 comments:

Ben said...

Siward in Orkney ... a raven banner. I wonder whether one ingredient that went into this marvellous story soup might have been the Earl Sigurd of Orkney who died carrying his Raven Banner in the Battle of Clontarf?

Clerk of Oxford said...

Yes, that does seem very likely! Especially as Sigurd and Siward share the nickname 'digri'. It's not clear exactly what the connection is, but probably stories about Sigurd of Orkney were known in England and contributed to the general 'story soup' (I like that way of putting it!).

Carl Anderson said...

Very interested in the Siward story, especially as it relates to Böðvar-Bjarki and developments in Anglo-Scandinavian legend in Britain! You mention having spent some time researching this; have you yet published anything on these issues, or could you point me to (recent) work on them?

Clerk of Oxford said...

I'm glad you asked ;) I published an article on this last year in Neophilologus: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11061-013-9371-3

Steffen said...


What an enjoyable read, thank you!

There is so much about this story that warrants comment, but I was particularly struck by the episode where he meets the old man on the mound. This reminds me of a story which is told about Olaf Tryggvasson in the anonymous Norwegian chronicle Historia Norwegie (probably written between 1160 and 1175). Here, Olaf Tryggvasson goes to England and goes ashore where there lives a hermit of some reputation as a prophet.

In order to test the hermit, Olaf sends one of his men disguised as himself, but the hermit sees right through the disguise and tells the man to send the king to his abode. Olaf goes and receives the prophecy that he will return to his country in glory.

If I remember correctly, this story is in its own turn taken from the legend of Olaf Haraldsson, but I need to check that to be entirely sure.

What I find even more intriguing about the story of the prophet, is that this story seems to be based on an episode from the life of Saint Benedict as told by Gregory the Great in the Dialoges. Here, it is the Gothic king Totila - a recurring antagonist in the many saint stories of the Dialogues - who sends one of his men to Benedict disguised as the king of the Goths, to test Benedict's clairvoyance. Naturally, Benedict sees through the disguise and Totila becomes so overawed that he does not dare to harm Benedict out of piety. This awe did not, however, prevent Totila from persecuting other saints in other stories.